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Director Nagisa Oshima
Nagisa Oshima's lost masterpiece was one of my most anticipated films at this year's Fantasia Festival. Although the director of Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Night and Fog in Japan (1960), Violence at Noon (1966), In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) and most recently Gohatto (Taboo, 1999) has been written about extensively, little has been said anywhere about his avant-garde take on the art of anime.
I am forced to excerpt Rupert Bottenberg's plot synopsis, since I had absolutely no idea what was going on for the entire 2.5 hours I was glued to the screen: "The 16th century was a turbulent age in Japan, a feudal state divided into tiny fiefs of varying strength. In a constant, bloody free-for-all, the lords of the different fiefs schemed against and attacked one another in order to grab as much land as they could. One victim of such plotting is Mitsuharu Yuki, lord of Fushikage in the northern Dewa province, whose murder could be traced to a treacherous servant named Shuzen Sakagami. With the help of some faithful retainers, his son Jutaro escapes. Years later, the boy returns to his family's castle to claim his revenge. His attempt fails, and it is only because of the ninja Kagemaru that he again flees with his life. Meanwhile, famine, repression and corruption are fanning the flames of peasant revolt, and other lords have dire plans of their own. Jutaro's vengeance is only a small piece in a much larger puzzle. Through all of this, Kagemaru's clan of ninja are watching, ready to strike at any moment."
Seriously -- Kagemaru was the only character I was able to recognize, since his name is said frequently and with much dramatic emphasis. An example: "He lifted off his mask to reveal that he was in fact the ninja...KAGEMARU!!!!" Kagemaru and his numerous doppelgangers dominate the characterizations, to the point where it seemed every character at one point or another would reveal himself to have been KAGEMARU!!! all along.
I was totally lost! The plot seemed convoluted even by feudal Japanese standards. But it says something for the power of the film when you can have no idea what is going on for several hours and still be watching with rapt attention. It was a uniquely beautiful film. It is not animated in any traditional sense, but takes still images from the popular manga "Ninja Bugeicho" and glides the camera across them to create the illusion of movement. Supported by detailed music and sound design, the final effect is astonishing. Since there is apparently one print in existence and it resides in Japan, one's chances of seeing it stateside are slim. That said, keep on top of your local Cinematheque listings, as its unearthing may generate some interest for use in Oshima retrospectives.